Less than 10 years after director Henri-Georges Clouzot had suffered state-sanctioned banishment from making films due to the public indignation provoked by his acrid wartime drama Le Corbeau, the taut 1953 action film The Wages of Fear established his place in world cinema, securing critical and economic clout sufficient for Clouzot to produce his Hitchcock-rivaling masterwork Diabolique. Like Hitch, Clouzot has often been judged a cold, technical director, and it's certainly true that The Wages of Fear contains tension-fraught stretches of "pure cinema" that probably gave even the Master cold sweats, but darkly humorous political satire directed at incipient global capitalism and a ballsy existentialism also suffuse Clouzot's film. "Man is nothing else," wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, arguing the necessity of political commitment, "than the sum of his actions." Given the film's bitterly ironic ending, it would seem that Clouzot, for his part, wasn't so sure that the sum ever exceeds zero.
The film's opening scenes depict children torturing insects recreationally and the local populace stewing in their own indolent juices, setting the wryly disillusioned tone and paving the way, among others, for Sam Peckinpah's equally nihilistic The Wild Bunch. Parboiled by the South American sun, the godforsaken town of Las Piedras serves as a particularly hellish human cul-de-sac, where a motley band of multinational good-for-nothings has washed up like so much flotsam. The arrival of Jo (Charles Vanel), a fugitive from justice who blusters his way into a role as big spender at the local cantina, sets the story in motion when Mario (Yves Montand), a French Corsican ne'er-do-well, throws over his roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli) to spend all his free time with Jo.
The rivalry for Mario's affection comes to a head when Luigi calls Jo to accounts in the midst of a rowdy evening at the cantina. Cinematographer Armand Thirard's expressionist-inflected lighting scheme throws bold black bars across the crowded room and the camera indulges in proto-Leone macro close-ups of the two men's faces as they attempt to stare each other down. Violence hovers at the edge of the frame, ready to burst forth at a moment's notice. When Jo pulls a gun on Luigi, the latter claims Jo wouldn't act as tough without it, so Jo hands it over. Luigi crumbles; jealous and possessive as he may be, he lacks that killer instinct. Disgraced and disconsolate, Luigi beats a hasty retreat like a spurned lover. Truth be told, Clouzot often suggests there's more than a homosocial affinity among the trio, and it's hardly surprising that these implications kicked up more fuss among various censorial bodies than the film's alleged anti-American content.
Without doubt, women are ancillary to the film's focus on macho self-determination in the face of insurmountable odds. The audience is introduced to the lone lady of note, servant girl Linda (played by Clouzot's wife Vera), scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees while the camera leers down her wide-open blouse, showing off the goods for the delectation of the male audience. Clouzot reportedly did everything he could to make a star out of the Brazilian-born actress, granting her the put-upon, heartsick lead in Diabolique, but that doesn't quite gloss her role here, in effect playing Mario's lapdog, sidling up to him on all fours for a placatory pat on the head.
The only ones having any luck in Las Piedras are the aloof American representatives of SOC (Southern Oil Company, a conveniently generic nom de greed)—that is, until one of their distant oil rigs explodes. Needing to transport two tons of nitroglycerin 300 miles over shoddy unpaved roads and treacherous switchbacks, SOC takes their recruitment to the people, neatly bypassing the pesky constraints of union bylaws. "Dangerous work, high pay!" announces the want ad. Competition is stiff, as it were. Only real men, read drivers, need apply. Nerves and aptitude soon whittle the applicant pool down until only four remain. Divided into two teams by SOC rep Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs), Jo and Mario head out first, followed after a brief interval by Luigi and Dutch national Bimba (Peter van Eyck), an Aryan type whose father was hanged during the war by the Nazis. Scenes with O'Brien bear the brunt of the blame for the film's reputed anti-Americanism. Gruff to the point of brusqueness, O'Brien betrays a callous, eminently businesslike attitude to death and injury, though, on the other hand, he stands up for the drivers, having known Jo since their "contraband days" back in the '30s. Less political than psychological, O'Brien is disenchanted, jaded. It's not much to pin a full-scale, anti-imperialist indictment on.
Our ragtag quartet doesn't hit the road until the film's second hour, whereupon a series of breathtaking set pieces ensues, one more elaborate (and protracted) than the previous, as the trucks negotiate increasingly inhospitable terrain and Clouzot takes his time with every detail, tailgating at breakneck pace across uneven ground known as "the washboard," navigating a partially constructed road extension that's little more than rotten timber jutting out over a void, which quickly becomes a domino-fall of unintended consequences. Like the cantina confrontation, this sequence showcases Clouzot's rapid-fire montage, breaking down a simple motion like Mario jumping from the platform onto the hillside into its constituent parts, a three-shot montage that ends with a knowing flourish as Mario kicks a spray of dirt into the camera lens.
More than the mechanics of their plight, Clouzot lavishes his attention on the always frangible equilibrium of the group dynamic, documenting with particularly pitiless clarity Jo's devolution from swaggering man of the world to cringing coward, someone who hides behind a wall at a safe distance while Mario maneuvers the truck around the timber switchback. Jo's breakdown continues when, overcoming the final obstacle, he must guide the truck with Mario behind the wheel across a widening pool of oil that resulted when Luigi and Bimba's truck detonated. Jo's exhortation "Whatever you do, don't stop!" comes back to haunt him when he's ensnared on submerged debris and then caught beneath the truck's wheels, leaving his leg horribly mangled. The pain leaves him delirious. He fantasizes about his home in Paris, a locale Mario also knows well. "You remember that fence? What was on the other side?" Jo asks, to which Mario responds, "Nothing. A vacant lot."
Already talk of boundaries and the beyond takes on loaded metaphorical weight. Rather than derive existential wisdom from actions that add up to something rational, Jo receives his terrible insight through subtraction, the elimination of everything that made him the man he once was. At the end, hallucinating outright, Jo sees his home again, the endless street, the fence, and the beyond. "There's nothing!" he calls out as he dies, a singular refutation of one of humanity's most abiding desires: that something of us survives this mortal coil.